Any one with an education at the high school level or higher may or may not have read Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", but he or she definitely will have heard of it. "Moby Dick" was Melville's sixth book, published in 1851. The book was also known as "The Whale" and, of course, had a maritime setting. It was not the only Melville book with a maritime setting. Melville spent a considerable amount of time on the seas as a sailor, and much of it in the South Seas' whaling industry. Hence Melville's favorite stories had that maritime orientation.
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. Although his paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melville [1751-1832], a member of the Boston Tea Party, appears to have been of British background, nearly all of his biographers list Herman's background as Dutch, probably because his more famous maternal grandfather was Peter Gansevoort. Peter Gansevoort was and still is renowned as a hero of the Saratoga campaign and for leading the defense of Fort Stanwix against the British during the War of Independence. General Peter Gansevoort was Hudson Valley Dutch and proud of it. General Gansevoort's famous portrait, in his gold-laced uniform, was painted by the noted artist Gilbert Stuart.
Herman Melville's father was an importer of French goods including felts and furs, and with the rest of the Melville family was well off. As a result he was able to send Herman to the prestigious New York Male High School from 1825 to 1829, and to the Grammar School of Columbia College from 1829 to 1830. The family apparently lived in a historic Dutch community and the parents had all their children baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1830's the Melville business collapsed and the family was forced to move to Albany where Herman attended Albany Academy from 1830 to 1831. In 1831 when Herman was only 12 years old his father died and his mother had to depend on family relations for financial support of her own family consisting of Herman and his siblings. As was usual the case, during that time period, if you are over 12 years old, you are usually put to work in an apprentice type of position. And Herman was put to work as a 12 year old.
During the 1830's Herman worked on a variety of jobs. Initially he clerked in a bank and later in the family's fur and cap business, then run by Herman's older brother Gansevoort Melville. He also did some school teaching in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and worked on his uncle's farm. He also studied at Landingsburgh Academy to learn surveying so he could participate in the building of the Erie Canal. He was, however, unsuccessful at obtaining a position there.
In 1839 he became a member of the crew of a ship named, "St. Lawrence", a ship on its way to Liverpool, England. It was Melville's first sea voyage. In 1841 he signed up for a more adventurous voyage on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas. During the voyage Herman and a companion rebelled against the harsh treatment by the captain and escaped from the ship while it was in the harbor of Nurkahiva, an island in the Marquesan Island chain. The island they found themselves on measured only 10 miles by 20 miles with a mountain in the center. It was occupied by two native tribes, one friendly, the Happars, and one unfriendly and cannibalistic, the Typees. After they escaped from their ship they, of course, decided to try to connect with the Happars, but ended up with the Typees. Melville and his partner were held prisoner by the Typees, who treated them reasonably well but kept them imprisoned. After a month as prisoners they were able to escape and were picked up by an Australian whaler.
The experience on the island as a prisoner of the Typees caused Melville to write his first novel based on that experience. It was entitled, "Typee, A Peep at Polynesian Life during Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas", published in 1846. The book did well and went through several editions and established Melville as a literary author.
Melville's second book entitled, "Omoo, A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas", published in 1847 was based on another whaling journey Melville took part in. In 1849 he published, "Mardi, and a Voyage Thither". The story was based on another Polynesian adventure. Melville apparently tried some different literary styles in this book which were not appreciated by the critics and the market. In 1849 Melville returned to his older, but successful literary style with "Redburn, His Voyage", in 1849 and with "White Jacket", or its other title, "The World in a Man of War," in 1850. Both books were successful.
In 1850 Melville hooked up with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby. This relationship awakened Melville's creative energies, and resulted in the production of his most-renowned novel, "Moby Dick", also entitled "The Whale". Interestingly, this book was not an instant success. But it certainly ensured Melville's reputation in literary history.
Melville produced the novel "Pierre", or "The Ambiguities," in 1852 and "Israel Potter, His 50 Years of Exile", in 1855. Neither book was considered a success. He followed this up with a number of short stories, two of which, "Bartley, The Scrivener", in 1853, and "Benito Cereno", in 1855 were considered significant works, and were successful. In 1856, he also published "Piazza Tales", an ontology of short stories.
In 1856 Melville journeyed to Europe, and followed up his travels with "The Confidence Man", in 1857. It was the last novel he would publish in his life time. He then was only 38 years old, and would still live for another 34 years.
So what did he do during those last 34 years of his life? There is not much information available. He did try his hand at poetry, and also did some other writing. But his literary productivity in comparison with the 1847-1857 period declined precipitously. The reason for the decline may have been the personal tragedies he encountered. In 1867 his oldest son shot himself. Another son, Stanwix, died after a long and debilitating illness in 1886.
Melville's published poetry appeared in 1866 as a volume of poems entitled, "Battle Pieces and Aspects of War". This was clearly a response or reaction to the horrors of the Civil War. A poem, "Clarel, A Pilgrimage in the Holy Land", in two volumes, was published in 1876.
During his final years Melville appears to have returned to writing prose. He completed the novel, "Billy Budd", in 1891, five months before his death. For a variety of reasons the book was not published during his life time. Even after his death it languished in his estate. Finally in 1924, 43 years after his death, it was finally published.
Melville's output as an author in terms of quantity and quality is amazing, especially considering that his productive career was during the twelve year period between 1846 and 1857. He essentially only had an elementary school education and had to quit school at age twelve. He was self-educated and self-taught. It was a truly amazing feat to become as renowned as he was and still is.
Herman Melville was married to Elizabeth Shaw on August 4, 1847. Their marriage produced four children, Malcolm [1849-1867], Stanwix [1851-1886], Elizabeth and Frances. Melville was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
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